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Obama open to appointing Ebola 'czar,' opposes travel ban

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Thursday that he was considering appointing an Ebola "czar" to coordinate the fight against the virus in the United States but he remained opposed to a ban on travel from West Africa.

U.S. President Barack Obama holds a meeting with cabinet agencies coordinating the government's Ebola response, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington October 15, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Thursday that he was considering appointing an Ebola "czar" to coordinate the fight against the virus in the United States but he remained opposed to a ban on travel from West Africa.

Obama's administration is under growing criticism from lawmakers over its efforts to contain the disease at home. Obama authorized calling up military reservists for the U.S. fight against Ebola in West Africa on Thursday.

U.S. concerns have intensified after two Texas nurses who cared for a dying Liberian patient contracted the virus that has killed nearly 4,500 people. Spain is also grappling with the spread of the disease, with four new patients with suspected Ebola symptoms admitted to hospitals.

The disease continues to spread in West Africa where outbreak began in March and is now in the last district in Sierra Leone that had been unaffected by Ebola.

U.S. lawmakers held a congressional hearing on Thursday about the administration's handling of the Ebola outbreak in the United States and some have called for a czar and a ban on travel from West Africa.


"It may be appropriate for me to appoint an additional person" to oversee efforts to contain Ebola, Obama told reporters after meeting aides involved in the fight against the disease.

Obama said experts tell him that "a flat-out travel ban is not the way to go" because current screening measures at airports are working.

He said he had no philosophical objection to a travel ban but that some travelers might attempt to enter the United States by avoiding screening measures, which could lead to more Ebola cases, not less, Obama said.

Jamaica announced an immediate travel ban on Thursday and South America's Guyana said it has denied entry to citizens from four Ebola-hit West African nations for the past five weeks.

U.S. Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta told reporters separately that the government was assessing whether to issue a travel ban "on a day-to-day basis."


News that one of the Dallas nurses, Amber Vinson, traveled aboard a commercial airliner while running a slight fever ratcheted up public health concerns on Wednesday. It prompted several schools in Ohio and Texas to close because people with ties to the schools may have shared the flight with Vinson.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) said it would take over the care of the first Texas nurse diagnosed with Ebola, Nina Pham. She contracted the virus while caring for Thomas Eric Duncan, who later died.


Pham, 26, was being transferred from Dallas to an isolation unit at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. Television images showed her ambulance being driven to a Dallas airport with a police escort.

Lawmakers in Washington focused questions and pointed criticism at the hearing on Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We need to look at all the options available to keep our families safe and move quickly and responsibly to make any necessary changes at airports," Democratic Representative Bruce Braley of Iowa told the hearing.

Several Republicans said flights from West Africa, where the virus is widespread, should be stopped.

The virus is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person showing symptoms of Ebola. Ebola is not airborne.

Frieden argued, as he has before, that closing U.S. borders would not work and would leave the country less able to track people with Ebola entering. Moreover, cutting flights to Africa would hit the U.S. ability to stop the virus at its source, he said.


More than a week after Duncan died, the Texas hospital that treated him said it was "deeply sorry" and it made mistakes in diagnosing Duncan and giving the public accurate information, said Dr. Daniel Varga, chief clinical officer and senior vice president of Texas Health Resources, which owns Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.


He also said there had been no Ebola training for staff before Duncan was admitted.

"It would be an understatement to say that the response to the first U.S.-based patient with Ebola has been mismanaged, causing risk to scores of additional people," said Representative Diana DeGette, the top Democrat on the subcommittee holding Thursday's hearing.

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